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THE LAST WORD: The problem with term limits

Ernest Bai Koroma

As Sierra Leone’s president seeks to amend the constitution and extend his presidency, it is time for Africa to pause and reflect

By Andrew M. Mwenda

The president of Sierra Leone, Ernest Bai Koroma, wants to amend the constitution and remove term limits on the presidency. Koroma is not the first and will not be the last president of an African country to attempt this. Many others have done it with success while a few have failed. Yet each time a country attempts to remove term limits, we have a standard explanation: the leader is greedy for power. Since the 1990s, we have regurgitated this explanation, reducing a social issue to the character of an individual.

Term limits were entrenched in the constitutions of many nations of Africa in the 1990s and 2000s. From thence, the efforts to remove them have been widespread in many countries regardless of how the government that seeks to remove them came to power: whether it was through an election victory by an opposition party, a military coup, an armed struggle, a popular insurrection or a peaceful succession after the death of an incumbent president.

The countries that have attempted it have different regime types in different regions of the continent; different bases of power, their leaders have different age, the colonial masters were different, etc. So why does this diversity produce the same politics? Anyone can infer from this that the problem is not leaders but term limits. Theoretically, term limits are an attractive innovation but they seem not well suited to the political circumstances of some nations. Hence, each time to respect term limits comes; the political elite seek to remove them.

Africa needs to think! Term limits may be too much ado over little or nothing. Most of Europe does not have them. Some leaders of Western European democracies in the post-World War Two era have served for long: President Urho Kekkonen of Finland did 26 years, Prime Ministers Tage Erlander of Sweden and Ainar Gerhardsen of Norway did 23 and 17 years respectively. Therefore, long tenure by leaders is not distinctly African. But all too often poorly performing governments get voted out of office.

Even Africa does not need term limits to change governments. In Senegal, presidents Abdou Diouf and Abdoulaye Wade were both defeated by rivals as happened in Benin against Mathieu Kerekou and Nicephore Soglo, Madagascar against Didier Ratsiraka, Congo Brazaville against Denis Sassou Nguesso, Malawi against Kamuzu Banda and Joyce Banda, in Zambia against Kenneth Kaunda and Rupia Banda, in Nigeria against Goodluck Jonathan, most recently in Ghana against John Mahama and in Gambia against Yahya Jammeh. In all these cases, poorly performing incumbents were shown the exit by irate voters without need for term limits.

Secondly Africans are not passive victims of manipulative leaders. Some leaders in Africa tried to remove term limits and failed – Frederick Chiluba in Zambia, Bakili Muluzi in Malawi and Olusegun Obasanjo in Nigeria. Blaise Compaoré in Burkina Faso was in 2015 chased out of power by angry youths for attempting to remove term limits. In DRC, the opposition last year succeeded (at least for now) in stopping President Joseph Kabila from amending the constitution to remove term limits and he has agreed on a retirement timetable.


  1. When he said that; “There was no chance that Barack Obama could amend the U.S. constitution and remove term limits even if he wished to.” What is Andrew Mwenda trying to insinuate or justify here?

    Andrew is suggesting that Africans, himself inclusive, subscribe to lower standards and to the whims of tin-horn dictators.

    Besides, Andrew is a nihilist. He should therefore give us a break with his admiration of Jesus’ teaching and his justification of human weaknesses; in order to have excuses to sin and/or commit crimes.

    • He was paraphrasing Apostle Paul;maybe unconsciously but nevertheless to the point and typically truthful. you sound learned but uneducated. Give us peace and cease insulting head-of-state when you might not even be head of family.

  2. Thomas Mundy Peterson (October 6, 1824 – February 4, 1904) of Perth Amboy, New Jersey was the first African-American to vote in an election under the just-enacted provisions of the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution. His vote was cast on March 31, 1870. Not 1965.

  3. In Cameroon Ahmadou Ahijo ruled for 22 years he had to step down coz of health issues ,In Zambia Chiluba served for only 2 terms,TZ is always a good girl aren’t these nations still in the third world?Africans love explaining away their problems and apportioning blame.

    M7 is still tidying up the country his time will one day come. When you read his body language, it shows that he is contented with the structures he has put in place.

    There are some initiatives that the West has put in place to lure African leaders to leave power e.g the Mo Ibrahim Prize, threatening them with ICC,blackmail by activists etc why haven’t these schemes worked?its coz Africa is a complex continent up to now some sections of Africa dont believe in immunization.we expect alot from our leaders yet we are also non starters.

    The youth and those in rural areas should know that its perfectly OK to live upcountry they can visit towns like Kampala,Masaka as tourists e.g in USA you find a family boarding a flight from Boston to New York or Washington for sightseeing yet they are in one country.

    Regarding poverty,famine and drought i always hear Ugandans complain of the harsh weather but even when the weather is favorable for farming, its the elderly and women who carry out small scale farming.

    Nayee obaa what happened to Africans(for real)

    • Winnie, the tropics is like paradise and it is unfortunate to be born and bred in them. If we had winter here and homelessness, maybe people would be different. And then the regular round-the-clock ceaseless harassment of the people whose language I am using now. kitalo nyo.

    • Be blessed Winnie, help out these Africans, perhaps they will politically grow and come to senses.

  4. Mr Muwenda, all I can satisfy that u are a real power. Am sure the very few who are squinted to look at themselves as majority are gonna cry and look at me with the curses of chicken that herbitually fail to kill the kite if not an eagle, but the reality opposed nonsense shall stand.

    However do not ceasefire Andrew, perhaps even the intellectually dehydrated chaps shall pick up if words of sense keep cutting across their faces. Y

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